Local Scientist Participates in Historic Arctic Expedition | WCAI

Local Scientist Participates in Historic Arctic Expedition

Jan 28, 2020

A local scientist has joined her colleagues at a spot near the North Pole; she’s part of the largest polar research expedition in history. It’s called the MOSAiC project, which stands for Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate. The $150 million endeavor is spread out over 390 days, with researchers from 20 countries participating.

WCAI’s Kathryn Eident talked with Carin Ashjian, a biologist from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, about what she’ll focus on during her two-month stay in the Arctic.

Eident Carin, thanks so much for talking with us. This is a huge project with something like 300 scientists involved from around the globe. Can you tell us what the overall goal is with this project?

Ashjian Well, the overall goal is to achieve what we might still call baseline understanding of the Arctic Ocean system. Baseline is kind of a funny word because the system is already changing a little bit, but there's still quite a bit we don't understand about the processes that we're going to be studying during the MOSAiC deployment. So, it's critically important for us to get this information.

Eident Temperatures are rising faster than anywhere else in the world, and we're losing ice at a pace that we haven't seen. So, I imagine that makes the work that you and your colleagues will be doing all the more urgent. But also interesting because it's changing so fast.

Ashjian Right. It's the work is extremely important, like I said, to get the baseline understanding. But at the same time, we're able to look at all these different processes and we can compare them to some earlier work that was done in the Arctic. But with that, we may be able to see how things have already changed at this point.

The reason I say "some previous work" is that we are data poor as far as a lot of the Arctic Ocean goes and many of the different processes and different aspects of the system, especially in the central Arctic where the MOSAiC is right now, and also especially during the winter seasons, because it's so hard to get out there and study. So, we've done a lot of work on ice camps in the past. There've been several previous over wintering freeze-ins of ships.

But, this is the most ambitious project to-date in terms of the scope of the science that's being studied while we're out there—the range of the disciplines, and also the technology and the facilities that we're able to bring to bear on looking at these different questions is really superlative, it’s the best we've ever been able to use.

Eident I understand that there's going to be research happening ashore, or on the ice, but also there's ships involved, a few ships.

Ashjian Well, right. The primary ship is that is the Polarstern. She's frozen into the ice right now and she serves as a hotel for us. But she's also got a lot of highly sophisticated equipment onboard as far as laboratory analyses go. So, with her there as our lab base, we're able to do, for me especially I work on zooplankton, we can do experiments with zooplankton that we haven't been able to do before in the central Arctic Ocean. And, the same extends to many of the other measurements that are being conducted in all the other disciplines. We're also able to use her winches, and the very long wires that we use to send instruments down into the depths of the Arctic Basin in the ocean. So, it's great.

And then, of course, there's a whole world off of the ship. We have installations called "Ocean City" or "Met City", which are tents or huts constructed out on the ice. For Ocean City, there's another hole in the ice out there and they're heated and they have electricity and all the electricity gets generated by the mothership, the Polarstern. And so, there's a whole city out there of facilities on ice as well as what we can do from the ship.

Eident Talk about the importance of zooplankton in the food chain and why you're focused on them.

Ashjian Well, I'm part of the ecosystem team. So as a whole, the team is looking at multiple facets of the ecosystem. We're not looking at the upper levels of the ecosystem, specifically such as the bears, and the seals, and the seabirds. But, we are looking very extensively at the very, very small organisms going from bacteria up into some of the larger zooplankton and the Arctic cod, which are actually quite small fish.

The zooplankton are the link in the food chain between the phytoplankton and the ice algae, which are the ones that do photosynthesis and fix carbon dioxide into plant material. So, the zooplankton eat the phytoplankton and then the zooplankton are food for higher in the food chain such as these Arctic cod, which I mentioned before.

They're also eaten by, interestingly enough, baleen whales such as the bowhead whale, which is an arctic species, also feed on the so plankton, just like the right whales feed on zooplankton here near Cape Cod. The bowhead whales feed on zooplankton in the Arctic. What we learn from the MOSAiC study can also be extended to understanding of zooplankton. The role in the food chain around the Arctic, in the Arctic system itself. The whole Arctic system.

Eident Talk a little bit about what it will be like to live up there. You'll be there for about two months. I know you've been there before. It's in total darkness. Extreme temperatures.

Ashjian The total darkness can be a little...I think it can be a little bit depressing, but we're gonna be so busy that I probably won't notice that that much. We are also going to be a tight-knit community on board the ship. We'll be eating together all the time and then we'll have special occasions along the way to break the routine and and mark a special day.

And also, when you work together in such close quarters, you often develop a real bond with the people you're working with. And it becomes a very, you know, very close-knit, very special experience to to work with people so intensively.

I'm no stranger to going to sea, so it's just it's a little bit more extreme because of the extreme environment. We have the cold, and we have the darkness and we have something that wants to eat us that we have to watch out for. [laughs] So, it's a little bit more extreme than just going to sea. But in some ways, it resembles going to sea on an oceanographic cruise as well, and that you're a team all working together to work towards a common goal.

Eident And, working around the clock, I imagine. And, two months sounds like a long time. But when you're out there and you've got work to do, that time is going to go by in a special way, I imagine.

Ashjian Well, you know, it's funny. You mentioned working around the clock and actually we won't be.

Eident Oh, interesting.

Ashjian Yeah, it's different because the ship isn't moving and because we only have a certain number of people, we don't have the personnel to do everything around the clock.

Eident If folks want to follow what's happening, I heard there's a blog.

Ashjian There is a blog. If you Google "Follow MOSAiC," it gets updated every day and we'll be able to see the daily updates.

Eident Well, Carin Ashjian, a biologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on her way to the Arctic. Thank you so much for taking a few minutes to talk with us. Good luck.

Ashjian OK! Thank you so much.

This transcipt was lightly edited for grammar and clarity.